Deep fake video app Avatarify, which process on-phone, plans digital watermark for videos

Making deep fake videos used to be hard. Now all you need is a smartphone. Avatarify, a startup that allows people to make deep-fake videos directly on their phone rather than in the Cloud, is soaring up the app charts after being used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.

However, the problem with many deep fake videos is that there is no digital watermark to determine that the video has been tampered with. So Avatarify says it will soon launch a digital watermark to prevent this from happening.

Run out of Moscow but with a US HQ, Avatarify launched in July 2020 and since then has been downloaded millions of times. The founders say that 140 million deepfake videos were created with Avatarify this year alone. There are now 125 million views of videos with the hashtag #avatarify on TikTok. While its competitors include the well-funded Reface, Snapchat, Wombo.ai, Mug Life, Xpression, Avatarify has yet to raise any money beyond an Angel round.

Despite taking only $120,000 in angel funding, the company has yet to accept any venture capital and says it has bootstrapped its way from zero to almost 10 million downloads and claims to have a $10 million annual run-rate with a team of less than 10 people.

It’s not hard to see why. Avatarify has a freemium subscription model. They offer a 7-day free trial and a 12-month subscription for $34.99 or a weekly plan for $2.49. Without a subscription, they offer the core features of the App for free, but videos then carry a visible watermark.

The founders also say the app protects privacy, because the videos are processed directly on the phone, rather than in the cloud where they could be hacked.

Avatarify processes user’s photos and turns them into short videos by animating faces, using machine learning algorithms, and adding sounds. The user chooses a picture she wants to animate, chooses the effects and music, and then taps to animate the picture. This short video can then be posted on Instagram or TikTok.

The Avatarify videos are taking off on TikTok because teens no longer need to learn a dance or be much more creative than finding a photo of a celebrity to animate to.

Avartify says you can’t use their app to impersonate someone, but there is of course no way to police this.

Founders Ali Aliev and Karim Iskakov wrote the app during the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020. Ali spent 2 hours writing a program in Python to transfer his facial expressions to the other person’s face and use a filter in Zoom. The result was a real-time video, which could be streamed to Zoom. He joined a call with Elon Mask’s face and everyone on the call was shocked. The team posted the video, which then went viral.

The code on Github and immediately saw the number of downloads grow. The repository was published on 6 April 2020, and as of 19 March 2021 had been downloaded 50,000 times.

Ali left his job at Samsung AI Centre and devoted himself to the app. After Avatarify’s iOS app was released on 28 June 2020, viral videos on TikTok, created with the app, led it to App Store’s top charts without paid acquisition. In February 2021, Avatarify was ranked first among Top Free Apps worldwide. Between February and March, the app 2021 generated more than $1M in revenue (Source: AppMagic).

However, despite Avartify’s success, the ongoing problems with deep-fake videos remain, such as using these apps to make non-consensual porn, using the faces of innocent people.

Fueled by pandemic, contactless mobile payments to surpass half of all smartphone users in U.S. by 2025

Among other technology trends accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of contactless mobile payments boomed in 2020. According to a recent report by analyst firm eMarketer, in-store mobile payments usage grew 29% last year in the U.S., as the pandemic pushed consumers to swap out cash and credit cards for the presumably safer mobile payments option at point-of-sale.

Last year, 92.3 million U.S. consumers age 14 or older used proximity-based mobile payments at least one time during a 6-month period in 2020 — a figure the firm expects to grow to reach 101.2 million this year. And that usage is now on track to surpass half of all smartphone users by 2025, eMarketer forecasts.

Image Credits: eMarketer

Adoption last year was largest among younger consumers, including Gen Z and millennials. The former is expected to account for more than 4 million of the total 6.5 million new mobile wallet users per year from 2021 to 2025. Millennials, meanwhile, will continue to account for around 4 in 10 mobile wallet users.

Several industry reports had already noted the pandemic impacts on the mobile wallet industry in general, with one from earlier this month by finance and investment company Finaria estimating that the industry would grow 24% from last year to reach $2.4 trillion in 2021. It had said that while Asian markets and particularly China had been leading the way in mobile payments adoption, the U.S. had earlier struggled due to the slow rollout of mobile payment technologies by retail stores. But now, the U.S. has grown to become the second-largest market with $465.1 billion worth of mobile payment transactions, which will grow to $698 billion in 2023.

The pandemic had pushed lagging retailers to finally get on board with mobile payments. A mid-year survey published in 2020 by the National Retail Federation and Forrester, found that no-touch payments had increased for 69% of retailers, and that 67% now accept some form of contactless payment, including both mobile payments and contactless cards.

Image Credits: eMarketer

As a result of the industry changes, eMarketer reports that not only has mobile wallet usage increased, the average annual spend per user is increasing, as well. The firm predicts that figure will grow 23.6% from ~$1,973.70 in 2020 to $2,439.68 in 2021, and will surpass $3,000 by 2023.

In the U.S., Apple Pay remains the top mobile payment player with 43.9 million users in 2021, growing by 14.4 million between 2020 and 2025 — more than its competitors. Starbucks will remain the No. 2 player with 31.2 million users, followed by Google Pay, which will add 10.2 million users during that time frame. Samsung Pay, meanwhile, is seeing stagnant growth, adding just 2 million more users between 2020 and 2025.

Image Credits: eMarketer

LG is shutting down its smartphone business worldwide

LG said on Monday it will close its loss-making mobile phone business worldwide as the once pioneer brand looks to focus its resources in “growth areas” such as electric vehicle components, connected devices, smart homes, robotics, AI and B2B solutions, and platforms and services.

The South Korean firm said in a statement that its board of directors approved the decision today. The unsurprising move follows the company’s statement from January when it said it was reviewing the direction of its smartphone business.

LG, which maintained No. 3 spot in the smartphone market in the U.S. for a long time, said it will continue to sell handsets until the inventory lasts, and will provide software support for existing lineup of smartphones for a certain period of time that would vary by region.

The company said the status of its employees of phone business will be determined at the local level. In January, reports emerged that said LG was looking to sell its smartphone business. In the same month, the company said it would launch a rollable phone this year. But it appears all the efforts to keep the business stay afloat failed.

“Moving forward, LG will continue to leverage its mobile expertise and develop mobility-related technologies such as 6G to help further strengthen competitiveness in other business areas. Core technologies developed during the two decades of LG’s mobile business operations will also be retained and applied to existing and future products,” it said in a statement.

The poor financial performance of LG’s smartphone business has been public information for several years. Like countless other Android smartphone vendors, LG has struggled to turn things around.

LG focused on mid-range and high-end smartphones, two segments of the market that have become increasingly competitive in the past decade thanks to the rise of Chinese phonemakers such as Huawei, Xiaomi, OnePlus, Oppo and Vivo that are launching better value-for-money models every few months. (Once a rival, HTC has been struggling, too.)

Several phonemakers today rely heavily on software services such as mobile payments to make money. While LG launched a mobile payments service in 2017, two years after Samsung launched Samsung Pay, LG’s portfolio of services remained thin throughout the years.

Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt receives a $14 billion order from VW

Northvolt, the Swedish battery manufacturer which raised $1 billion in financing from investors led by Goldman Sachs and Volkswagen back in 2019, has signed a massive $14 billion battery order with VW for the next 10 years.

The big buy clears up some questions about where Volkswagen will be getting the batteries for its huge push into electric vehicles, which will see the automaker reach production capacity of 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2025.

The deal will not only see Northvolt become the strategic lead supplier for battery cells for Volkswagen Group in Europe, but will also involve the German automaker increasing its equity ownership of Northvolt.

As part of the partnership agreement, Northvolt’s gigafactory in Sweden will be expanded and Northvolt agreed to sell its joint venture share in Salzgitter, Germany to Volkswagen as the car maker looks to build up its battery manufacturing efforts across Europe, the companies said.

The agreement between Northvolt and VW brings the Swedish battery maker’s total contracts to $27 billion in the two years since it raised its big $1 billion cash haul.

“Volkswagen is a key investor, customer and partner on the journey ahead and we will continue to work hard with the goal of providing them with the greenest battery on the planet as they rapidly expand their fleet of electric vehicles,” said Peter Carlsson, the co-founder and chief executive of Northvolt, in a statement.

Northvolt’s other partners and customers include ABB, BMW Group, Scania, Siemens, Vattenfall, and Vestas. Together these firms comprise some of the largest manufacturers in Europe.

Back in 2019, the company said that its cell manufacturing capacity could hit 16 Gigawatt hours and that it had sold its capacity to the tune of $13 billion through 2030. That means that the Volkswagen deal will eat up a significant portion of expanded product lines.

Founded Carlsson, a former executive at Tesla, Northvolt’s battery business was intended to leapfrog the European Union into direct competition with Asia’s largest battery manufacturers — Samsung, LG Chem, and CATL.

Back when the company first announced its $1 billion investment round, Carlsson had said that Northvolt would need to build up to150 gigawatt hours of capacity to hit targets for. 2030 electric vehicle sales.

The plant in Sweden is expected to hit at least 32 gigawatt hours of production thanks, in part to backing by the Swedish pension fund firms AMF and Folksam and IKEA-linked IMAS Foundation, in addition to the big financial partners Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs.

Northvolt has had a busy few months. Earlier in March the company announced the acquisition of the Silicon Valley-based startup company Cuberg.

That acquisition gave Northvolt a foothold in the U.S. and established the company’s advanced technology center.

The acquisition also gives Northvolt a window into the newest battery chemistry that’s being touted as a savior for the industry — lithium metal batteries.

Cuberg spun out of Stanford University back in 2015 to commercialize what the company called its next-generation battery combining a liquid electrolyte with a lithium metal anode. The company’s customers include Boeing, BETA Technologies, Ampaire, and VoltAero and it was backed by Boeing HorizonX Ventures, Activate.org, the California Energy Commission, the Department of Energy and the TomKat Center at Stanford.

Cuberg’s cells deliver 70 percent increased range and capacity versus comparable lithium ion cells designed for electric aviation applications. The two companies hope that they can apply the technology to Northvolt’s automotive and industrial product portfolio with the ambition to industrialize cells in 2025 that exceed 1,000 Wh/L, while meeting the full spectrum of automotive customer requirements, according to a statement.

“The Cuberg team has shown exceptional ability to develop world-class technology, proven results and an outstanding customer base in a lean and efficient organization,” said Peter Carlsson, CEO and Co-Founder, Northvolt in a statement. “Combining these strengths with the capabilities and technology of Northvolt allows us to make significant improvements in both performance and safety while driving down cost even further for next-generation battery cells. This is critical for accelerating the shift to fully electric vehicles and responding to the needs of the leading automotive companies within a relevant time frame.”

 

Tetrate, the company born out of Istio’s open source app networking project, raises $40 million

Tetrate, the company commercializing an open source networking project that allows for easier data sharing across different applications, has raised $40 million.

The round, led by Sapphire Ventures underscores the importance of the Istio project and just how critical services that facilitate cross-platform data sharing have become.

Sapphire was joined by other new investors including Scale Venture Partners and NTTVC, along with existing investors, Dell Technologies Capital, Intel Capital, 8VC, and Samsung NEXT.

The company said it would use the cash to further develop its hybrid cloud application networking platform and support a new product, based on Istio, that makes the application service mesh easier to use, according to a statement from the company. Geographic expansion to Latin America, Europe and Asia is also on the menu now that it has 40 million simoleons to play around with (personally I’d have converted all that money into bills and gone swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck).

“As the microservices revolution picks up steam, it’s indispensable to use Istio for managing applications built with microservices and deployed on containers. Both the product and background of the founding team lead us to believe that Tetrate is poised to bring Istio into the mainstream for enterprises by making it easy to manage and deploy on multi-cloud and hybrid cloud environments,” said Jai Das, the partner, president and co-founder of Sapphire’s multi-billion dollar firm, who’s joining the Tetrate board. “The applications we use daily require a lot of work in the background, and Tetrate helps make that happen with its Istio-based service mesh technology, which helps route traffic between microservices, add visibility and enhance security.”

Founded in 2018, Tetrate formally launched in 2019 with a $12.5 million round that boosted the company’s profile and helped the company commercialize and professionalize services around the Istio and Envoy Proxy open source projects.

Tons of really big customers, including the U.S. Department of Defense use Tetrate’s services currently. In the military, Tetrate powers the DevSecOps platform called Platform One.

“We partnered with Tetrate to help secure and smoothly operate Platform One with Istio. Platform One works with the most critical systems across the DoD. The Tetrate team has provided world class expertise, trained our team members, reviewed our platform architecture and configurations, and helped with debugging and upgrades,” said Nicolas Chaillan, the chief software officer for the US Air Force, in a statement. “We’re getting excellent production support for running our platform smoothly and we rely on them and their platform for a critical layer of our stack.”

Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India

Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, Apple.com also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

Global smartphone shipments expected to rebound 11% this year

Like countless other industries, mobile phone sales got hit hard in 2020. The industry hit a 10.5% decline for the year, as Covid-19 first decimated the supply and later consumer demand for devices. It was the latest in a rough couple of years for manufacturers, but 2020 hit significantly harder than most.

New numbers from Gartner point to a rebound to pre-2020 levels. The firm is forecasting 1.5 billion devices shipped globally for 2021, amounting to an 11.4% increase across the board. We certainly saw the beginnings of that rebound arrive in Q4 for last year, as declines continued to slow, thanks in no small part to a record quarter for iPhone sales.

That points to the beginnings of a so-called “supercycle” for Apple, which hits a sort of perfect storm. The last few years have seen consumers slow down upgrades, as device prices increased, features were generally less compelling and their existing devices were perfectly fine so as not to warrant a standard two to three year upgrade pattern.

Analysts pointed to 5G a clear conduit for righting slipping sales numbers early last year, but a global pandemic very much threw a wrench in all of that. If anything, however, the iPhone’s Covid-19 related delay actually contributed to a stellar quarter for the company, both in time for holiday sales and the arrival of multiple vaccines that pointed to some potential return to normalcy.

The long awaited 5G bump will continue in 2021, according to the new numbers, coupled with a quick push to offer next-gen wireless at an accessible price.

“The growing availability of 5G networks coupled with a higher variety of 5G smartphones starting at $200 will steer demand in mature markets and China,” the firm notes. “Demand in emerging countries will be driven by buyers looking for a smartphone with better specifications and a 5G connectivity as an optional feature. Gartner forecasts sales of 5G smartphones will total 539 million units worldwide in 2021, which will represent 35% of total smartphone sales in that year.”

Cybersecurity startup SpiderSilk raises $2.25M to help prevent data breaches

Dubai-based cybersecurity startup SpiderSilk has raised $2.25 million in a pre-Series A round, led by venture firms Global Ventures and STV.

In the past two years, SpiderSilk has discovered some of the biggest data breaches: Blind, the allegedly anonymous social network that exposed private complaints by Silicon Valley employees; a lab leaked highly sensitive Samsung source code; an inadvertently public code repository revealed apps, code, and apartment building camera footage belonging to controversial facial recognition startup Clearview AI; and a massive spill of unencrypted customer card numbers at now-defunct MoviePass may have been the final nail in the already-beleaguered subscription service’s casket.

Much of those discoveries were found from the company’s proprietary internet scanner, SpiderSilk co-founder and chief security officer Mossab Hussein told TechCrunch.

Any company would want their data locked down, but mistakes happen and misconfigurations can leave sensitive internal corporate data accessible from the internet. SpiderSilk helps its customers understand their attack surface by looking for things that are exposed but shouldn’t be.

The cybersecurity startup uses its scanner to map out a company’s assets and attack surfaces to detect vulnerabilities and data exposures, and it also simulates cyberattacks to help customers understand where vulnerabilities are in their defenses.

“The attack surface management and threat detection platform we built scans the open internet on a continuous basis in order to attribute all publicly accessible assets back to organizations that could be affected by them, either directly or indirectly,” SpiderSilk’s co-founder and chief executive Rami El Malak told TechCrunch. “As a result, the platform regularly uncovers exploits and highlights how no organization is immune from infrastructure visibility blind-spots.”

El Malak said the funding will help to build out its security, engineering and data science teams, as well as its marketing and sales. He said the company is expanding its presence to North America with sales and engineering teams.

It’s the company’s second round of funding, after a seed round of $500,000 in November 2019, also led by Global Ventures and several angel investors.

“The SpiderSilk team are outstanding partners, solving a critical problem in the ever-complex world of cybersecurity, and protecting companies online from the increasing threats of malicious activity,” said Basil Moftah, general partner at Global Ventures.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing

The Galaxy S21 is a tank. It’s a big, heavy (8.04 ounces versus its predecessor’s 7.7), blunt instrument of a phone. It’s quintessential Samsung, really — the handset you purchase when too much isn’t quite enough. In fact, it even goes so far as adopting S-Pen functionality — perhaps the largest distinguishing factor between the company’s two flagship lines.

In many ways it — and the rest of the S21 models — are logical extensions of the product line. Samsung hasn’t broken the mold here. But the company didn’t particularly need to. The line remains one of the best Android devices you can buy. It’s a product experience the company is content to refine, while saving more fundamental changes for the decidedly more experimental Galaxy Z line.

Samsung certainly deserves credit for going all in on 5G early. The company was ahead of the curve in adopting next-gen wireless and was among the first to add it across its flagship offerings. 5G became a utilitarian feature remarkably fast — owing in no small part to Qualcomm’s major push to add the tech to its mid-tier chips. In fact, the iPhone 12 may well be the last major flagship that can get away with using the addition of the tech as a major selling point.

With that out of the way, smartphone makers are returning to familiar terrain on which to wage their wars — namely imaging. S-Pen functionality for the Ultra aside, most of the top-level upgrades of this generation come on the camera side of things. No surprise there, of course. The camera has always a focus for Samsung — though the changes largely revolved around software, which is increasingly the trend for many manufacturers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are, however, some hardware changes worth noting. Namely, the new S models represent one of the bigger aesthetic updates in recent memory. I’d mentioned being kind of on the fence about them in my original write up of the news, owing largely to that weird wrinkle of 2020/2021 gadget blogging: not being able to see the device in person. Now that I’ve been toting the product around the streets of New York for several days, I can say definitive that, well, I’m mostly kind of okay with them, I guess.

The big sticking point is that massive contour cut camera housing. Pretty sure I used the word “brutalist” to describe it last time. Having used the product, I’d say it’s fairly apt. There’s something…industrial about the design choice. And it’s really pronounced on the Ultra, which sports four camera holes, plus a laser autofocus sensor and flash. It’s a big, pronounced camera bump built from surprisingly thick metal. I suspect it’s owed, in part, to the “folded” telephoto lens.

Samsung sent along the Phantom Black model. The color was something the company devoted a surprising amount of stage time to during the announcement. It was the kind of attention we rarely see devoted to something as inconsequential as a color finish, outside of some Apple bits. Here’s a long video about it if you’re curious. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nice. It’s matte black. I do dig the new metallic back; even with Corning on your side, a glass back really feels like an accident waiting to happen.

The curved screen looks nice, per usual, accented well by the round corners. The screen itself is striking — Samsung’s displays always are. The screens on the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra are 6.2, 6.7 and 6.8 inches, respectively. Those are all unchanged, save for the Ultra, which is, strangely, 0.1 inches smaller than its predecessor. It’s not really noticeable, but is an odd choice from a company that has long insisted that bigger is better when it comes to displays.

Eye Comfort Shield is a welcome addition, adjusting the screen temperature based on time of day and your own usage. If you’ve used Night Shift or something similar, you know the deal — the screen slowly shifts toward the more yellow end of the white balance spectrum, reducing blue light so as to not throw your circadian rhythms out of whack. It’s off by default, so you’ll have to go into settings to change it.

The company has also introduced a Dynamic Refresh Rate feature, which cycles between 46 and 120Hz, depending on the app you’re using. This is designed to save some battery life (a 120Hz along with 5G can be a big power hog). The effect is fairly subtle. I can’t say I really noticed over the course of my usage. I certainly appreciate the effort to find new ways to eke out extra juice.

The new era of Samsung is equally notable for what it left off. The new S models mark the end of an era as the company finally abandons expandable storage (following in the footsteps of the Z line). I mean, I get it. These devices range from 128 to 512GB of storage. For a majority of users, the microSD reader was superfluous. I certainly never needed to use it. Per the company, “Over time, SD card usage has markedly decreased on smartphones because we’ve expanded the options of storage available to consumers.”

Of course, expanding the built-in memory is going to cost you. Mostly, though, it’s always a bit of a bummer to say farewell to a long-time distinguishing factory. Speaking of, the company also ditched the in-box headphones and power adapter, notably deleting some ads in which it mocked Apple for recently doing the same. It’s the headphone jack all over again.

The company offered up a similar sustainability explanation in a recent statement. “We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits.” As a consequence, the box is nearly half as thick as those from earlier S lines, for what that’s worth.

As mentioned above, the cameras are remarkably similar to their predecessors, with a few key differences. The S20 Ultra sported an 108-megapixel wide lens (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2) and 48-megapixel (f/3.5) telephoto (4x zoom), while the S21 Ultra features a 108-megapixel wide (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2), 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto (3x zoom) and 10MP telephoto (f/4.9) (10x zoom). The dual telephoto lenses are the biggest differentiator.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The device will switch between telephotos, depending on how much you zoom in. The device performs a lot better than many competing handsets at distances requiring around 10x. Though, while the ability to zoom up to 100x is an extremely impressive thing for a phone to do on paper, the images degrade really quickly at higher levels. At a certain point, the image starts taking on the style of an impressionist painting, which isn’t particularly useful in a majority of cases.

Once Samsung (or whoever) can properly crack the code on translating that noise into signal, it will really be a breakthrough. Still, Zoom Lock is a nice addition in helping to minimize hand shake while zooming. Accidental movements tend to increasing exponentially the tighter you get in on an image. The Super Steady, too, has been improved for video recording.

Portrait mode has been improved. There still tends to be trouble with more complex shapes, but this is a problem I’ve run into with pretty much all solutions. Samsung gets some points here for offering a ton of post-shot portrait editing, from different bokeh levels, to adjusting the focal point to other effects. As with much of the camera software, there’s a lot to play around with.

[gallery ids="2098908,2098905,2098906,2098907,2098909,2098910,2098911,2098913,2098916"]

Other key additions include 8K snap, a nice addition that lets you pull high-res images from a single frame of 8K video. There’s also Vlogger Mode, which shoots from the front and back simultaneously. Someone will no doubt find some social use for this, but it feels a bit gimmicky — one of those features a majority of users will promptly forget about. Additional options are generally a good thing, though the camera software has gotten to the point where there are a ton of menus to navigate.

I get the sense that most users want a way to quickly snap photos and shoot videos. The lower-end S21 entries are great for that. The hardware is strong enough to give you great shots with minimal effort. If you’re someone who really enjoys drilling down on features and getting the best images on-device without exporting to a third-party app, the Ultra is the choice for you. In addition to being a kind of kitchen sink approach, the high-end device is all about choice.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The addition of S Pen functionality is probably the most notable — and curious — thing the Ultra has going for it. On the face of it, this feels like the latest — and most pronounced — in a series of moves effectively blurring the lines between the company’s two flagships. Perhaps Samsung will make a move to further differentiate the next Note, or maybe the company is content to simply let the device meld over time.

There is one major difference off the bat, of course. Namely the fact that there’s no pen slot on the S21. This means that:

  1. The stylus is sold separately.
  2. You need to buy a case with an S Pen holder (also sold separately, naturally) if you’ve got any hope of not losing it.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I happened to have a Note S Pen lying around and found the experience to be pretty smooth. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I’m not really a stylus person myself, but Samsung’s done a good job building up the software over the years. The S Pen is a surprisingly versatile tool, courtesy of several generations of updates. But I would say if the peripheral is important to you, honestly, just buy a Note.

The components are what you’d expect from a high-end Samsung. That includes the brand new Snapdragon 888 (in some markets, at least), and either 12 or 16GB of RAM and 128, 256 or 512GB of storage on the Ultra. The battery remains the same as last year, at 5,000mAh. In spite of 5G and a high refresh rate, I’ve gotten more than a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge.

In the end, the S21 isn’t a huge change over the S20. It’s more of a refinement, really. But it does represent a big change for Samsung. The company has implemented a $200 price drop across the board for these products. The S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra start at $799, $999 and $1,199, respectively. None are what you would call cheap, exactly, but $200 isn’t exactly insignificant, whether it means easing the blow of getting in on the entry level or taking the pain out of going for a higher-end model.

It’s a clear reflection of a few years’ worth of stagnating smartphone sales, exacerbated by some dire numbers amid COVID. It’s nice to see a company take those issues — and concern around spending $1,000+ on a smartphone — to heart beyond simply offering up a flagship “lite.”

 

Qualcomm-backed chipmaker Kneron nails Foxconn funding, deal

A startup based out of San Diego and Taipei is quietly nailing fundings and deals from some of the biggest names in electronics. Kneron, which specializes in energy-efficient processors for edge artificial intelligence, just raised a strategic funding round from Taiwan’s manufacturing giant Foxconn and integrated circuit producer Winbond.

The deal came a year after Kneron closed a $40 million round led by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing’s Horizons Ventures. Amongst its other prominent investors are Alibaba Entrepreneurship Fund, Sequoia Capital, Qualcomm and SparkLabs Taipei.

Kneron declined to disclose the dollar amount of the investment from Foxconn and Winbond due to investor requests but said it was an “eight figures” deal, founder and CEO Albert Liu told TechCrunch in an interview.

Founded in 2015, Kneron’s latest product is a neural processing unit that can enable sophisticated AI applications without relying on the cloud. The startup is directly taking on the chips of Intel and Google, which it claims are more energy-consuming than its offering. The startup recently got a talent boost after hiring Davis Chen, Qualcomm’s former Taipei head of engineering.

Among Kneron’s customers are Chinese air conditioning giant Gree and German’s autonomous driving software provider Teraki, and the new deal is turning the world’s largest electronics manufacturer into a client. As part of the strategic agreement, Kneron will work with Foxconn on the latter’s smart manufacturing and newly introduced open platform for electric vehicles, while its work with Winbond will focus on microcontroller unit (MCU)-based AI and memory computing.

“Low-power AI chips are pretty easy to put into sensors. We all know that in some operation lines, sensors are quite small, so it’s not easy to use a big GPU [graphics processing unit] or CPU [central processing unit], especially when power consumption is a big concern,” said Liu, who held R&D positions at Qualcomm and Samsung before founding Kneron.

Unlike some of its competitors, Kneron designs chips for a wide range of use cases, from manufacturing, smart home, smartphones, robotics, surveillance, payments, to autonomous driving. It doesn’t just make chips but also the AI software embedded in the chips, a strategy that Liu said differentiates his company from China’s AI darlings like SenseTime and Megvii, which enable AI service through the cloud.

Kneron has also been on a less aggressive funding pace than these companies, which fuel their rapid expansion through outsize financing rounds. Six-year-old SenseTime has raised about $2.6 billion to date, while nine-year-old Megvii has banked about $1.4 billion. Kneron, in comparison, has raised just over $70 million from a Series A round.

Like the Chinese AI upstarts, Kneron is weighing an initial public offering. The company is expected to make a profit in 2023, Liu said, and “that will probably be a good time for us to go IPO.”